In August 1998, as famine reached a terrible climax in North Korea, the destitute Asian nation enrolled a shy teenager, Kim Jong Un, in a Swiss state school. A rare insight into this sealed world is offered by Swiss recollections of the young North Korean who, from 1998 until late 2000, lived in Liebefeld at No. 10 Kirchstrasse, a sedate suburban street.
Known as "Pak Un" to his teachers at Liebefeld-Steinhölzli Schule, a German-speaking state school, he was registered with Swiss authorities as the son of an employee at North Korea's embassy in the nearby city of Bern. (Pak is a very common Korean surname akin to Smith.)
During his first few months in Liebefeld, Pak Un attended a remedial language course for foreign students with poor German. A swift learner, he soon switched to a regular class, said an education official, who described the boy as "well-integrated, diligent and ambitious." Friends recalled that Pak Un spoke fluent, if sometimes ungrammatical, German but struggled with the Swiss dialect. He also knew English.
[While it was widely reported that he had attended the International School of Berne, a private, English-speaking establishment near the North Korean Embassy in the Swiss capital, North Korea watchers say, that student -- who went by the name "Pak Chol" -- was most likely Kim Jong Un's older brother, Kim Jong Chol.]
Kim Jong Un has not been seen in public since his apparent time in Switzerland. Neither his name nor his photograph has ever appeared in North Korean media. After leaving Europe, he is reported to have attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Military University, an officer training school, but virtually nothing else is known about him.
The Swiss education of North Korea's apparent future leader raises a tantalizing question: Did it open his horizons beyond the narrow, xenophobic worldview of his homeland, where schools bombard pupils with the evils of "U.S. imperialism" and instill unquestioning obedience to a highly centralized state headed by a leader-for-life? This is in stark contrast to Switzerland, a democratic federal state in which power is widely diffused, where all laws can be challenged by citizens through referendum, and where the presidency is a rotating position that changes every year.